Baseball Preview: Arizona

The conference season reaches its halfway point after this weekend, so the time is now for the Cardinal. Stanford has dropped their first three Pac-10 series' and thus find themselves with just a 2-7 record. This weekend, they'll meet another struggling ballclub in the 3-6 Arizona Wildcats. The winner of the series has a chance to gain some momentum for the second half while the loser falls further down with little hope of rebounding.

2006 has certainly been a transition year for head coach Andy Lopez and his Arizona Wildcats.  2004 saw the team from Tucson get hot at the right time and advance all the way to the College World Series.  With nearly everyone back in '05, expectations were sky-high for a return trip.  Arizona came through with a spectacular regular season finishing with a 17-7 Pac-10 record (second only to Oregon State) and a top-ten ranking.  Unfortunately, the Wildcats' facility doesn't allow them to currently host regionals (would suffer a significant loss of money), so UA had to be shipped to Fullerton when the seedings were announced.  Instead of another magical journey to Nebraska, the Wildcats couldn't get past the host Titans on the final day of the regional and thus the rebuilding process began.

Arizona had probably the top hitting club of any team in the country last season.  A .328 batting average against one of the toughest schedules in the country certainly turned a lot of heads.  The result, however, was four standout performers (led by Co-Pac-10 Player of the Year and first rounder Trevor Crowe) and a fifth (who graduated) all moving onto professional baseball.  The departure of all that talent will leave a massive hole in any team, even an up-and-coming program like Arizona.

It wasn't much better on the pitching side either.  Ten-game winners John Meloan and Kevin Guyette were both drafted while #3 starter Sean Rierson exhausted his collegiate eligibility.  A revamped offense and a completely different starting rotation heading into this season certainly made for much lower expectations down in Tucson.

Thus far, it's been about as expected for the 2006 Wildcat baseball program.  A team loaded with talented, but youthful players has suffered an incredible amount of close losses.  Arizona is the only Pac-10 team currently under .500 as they sport a 15-19 overall record heading into this weekend.  Meanwhile, in conference play, the Wildcats have suffered three straight series losses at California, at Oregon State, and versus UCLA.  They have avoided any sweeps though and thus Arizona checks in a game better than Stanford in the Pac-10 race with a 3-6 mark.

Offensively, much like the Cardinal, it's been a struggle for the Wildcats.  Arizona is currently hitting just .277 as a team while scoring about five and a half runs per game.  Their team batting average is ahead of just California and Stanford (.265) in the conference rankings.  The Wildcats have very little power as evident by their Pac-10-low 14 home runs.  Part of that is the ballpark they play in as Kindell Field is the home of very deep power alleys which are much more conducive to doubles and triples (Arizona again leads the league in three-baggers).

There are all kinds of new faces in this lineup with three freshmen and a pair of JC transfers seeing regular playing time.  Among the veterans, senior second baseman Brad Boyer could present a problem to the Cardinal pitching staff this weekend.  A four-year starter, Boyer was an All-Pac-10 selection as a freshman way back in 2003.  He's produced at a steady rate since then and brings a .291 average and a team-best 12 stolen bases into this season.

Teamed with junior shortstop Jason Donald, Arizona features one of the most experienced middle infields in the conference.  Donald, who became a starter immediately as a freshman, is currently batting .299 with two homers, and a team-high 28 RBI out of the cleanup spot in the lineup.  Donald has excellent physical tools and was receiving mention as a possible first round draft pick heading into the season.  Neither Boyer or Donald have put up dominant numbers offensively this year, but both are very capable and each played major roles on the standout Arizona clubs of '04 and '05.

Other than those two players, Stanford hurlers, for the most part, will be going up against unfamiliar faces.  A trio of freshmen in Jon Gaston (.302, 4 HR, 17 RBI), David Plante (.299, 2 HR, 19 RBI), and Brad Glenn (.260, 4 HR, 12 RBI) have earned regular time throughout the year.  All three players are counted on to provide plenty of offense in the middle portion of this lineup.  Coach Lopez is one of the finest recruiters in the country, so while Arizona may not be racking up as many wins as normal this season, there's little doubt that many of these young players will eventually become some of the offensive stars in the Pac-10.

Sophomore third baseman Colt Sedbrook currently leads the Arizona offense in hitting at .333 (Gaston is the only other starter batting over .300).  Sedbrook handles the bat very well and seems to have found a home in the #2 spot in the batting order behind Boyer.

On the pitching side, Arizona has some very exciting young talent that could make their '07 staff one of the best in the Pac-10.  For the time being though, there's probably way too much inconsistency and injuries for Lopez's liking. 

Sophomore lefty Eric Berger had an excellent rookie campaign in Tucson (3.84 ERA in 61 IP) before starring in the Cape Cod League over the summer.  The ace starter on this team, Berger has had a few spectacular starting pitching performances - including one at nationally ranked Mississippi State in March when he struck out 11 in just 5 1/3 innings.  In seven starts, Berger is 3-4 with a 4.42 ERA and 43 strike outs in just 38 2/3 innings.

Stanford though looks as if they'll catch a break.  Berger hasn't started a game since March 17th due to an elbow injury and isn't listed among their probable starters this weekend.  Berger certainly has all the tools necessary to become a first round draft pick in 2007, but it doesn't appear as if he'll be throwing this weekend.

Taking his place atop the Arizona starting rotation has been freshman right-hander Preston Guilmet.  Much like Greg Reynolds, Guilmet has been the victim of some tough Friday night luck.  Outside of the win-loss record though, Guilmet is having a stellar freshman campaign and looks as if he'll be wreaking havoc in the Pac-10 for years to come.  Overall, he's compiled a 3.36 ERA and that number drops even lower as a starter (2.87).

Rounding out the rotation are a pair of lefties in junior Brad Mills and sophomore David Coulon.  Mills is a former walk-on who saw very little action in his first two years at Arizona.  Now, he's a regular member of the starting rotation having posted a 4.09 ERA in 55 innings this season.  Coulon, like Berger, excelled in the Cape Cod League last summer as a freshman.  However, for the most part, it's been a rough second season for the young lefty.  In 27 innings (mainly as a reliever), Coulon has a hefty 7.00 ERA.  He was bombed by UCLA last weekend (2 IP, 6 H, 7 R), but is still quite talented and fully capable of beating anyone (see his Oregon State start two weeks ago: 7 IP, 1 R).

Out of the bullpen, it doesn't get much better than Mark Melancon.  The career Arizona leader in saves (18), Melancon is having another spectacular season down in the desert.  In 14 appearances, the junior right-hander has a 2.97 ERA, four saves, and 52 strike outs in just 39 1/3 innings.  Melancon dominated as the Team USA closer last summer and has shown on many occasions that he can go three or four innings in relief if it's needed.  It would certainly behoove the Cardinal offense to do their damage against an up-and-down Arizona starting rotation and bullpen before Melancon enters the ballgame.

As a team, Arizona currently possesses a 4.79 team ERA.  While that's not a horrible earned run average, by any means, it is the worst of any club in the pitching-rich Pac-10.  It's just as bad from a fielding standpoint as the young Wildcats have committed a whopping 60 errors in 34 games for a league-worst .956 fielding percentage.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Brad Boyer, 2B  (Sr., .291, 0 HR, 15 RBI, 12 SB)
2. Colt Sedbrook, 3B  (So., .333, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 1 SB)
3. Jon Gaston, CF  (Fr., .302, 4 HR, 17 RBI, 7 SB)
4. Jason Donald, SS  (Jr., .299, 2 HR, 28 RBI, 3 SB)
5. David Plante, LF  (Fr., .299, 2 HR, 19 RBI, 0 SB)
6. Brad Glenn, 1B  (Fr., .260, 4 HR, 12 RBI, 1 SB)
7. Bill Rhinehart, RF  (Jr., .282, 1 HR, 20 RBI, 0 SB)
8. Konrad Schmidt, C  (Jr., .271, 0 HR, 12 RBI, 0 SB)
9. Derek Decater, DH  (Sr., .221, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 1 SB)

Fri- Preston Guilmet, RHP  (Fr., 2-4, 3.36 ERA, 56.1 IP, 16 BB, 52 SO)
Sat- Brad Mills, LHP  (Jr., 3-3, 4.09 ERA, 55.0 IP, 24 BB, 58 SO)
Sun- David Coulon, LHP  (So., 1-3, 7.00 ERA, 27.0 IP, 14 BB, 25 SO)

Notes: Sedbrook has been hit by an amazing total of 18 pitches this year ... Combined with his high average, that result is an impressive on-base percentage (.449) ... On the negative side, he's committed 13 errors from his third base position for a dismal .886 fielding percentage ... Gaston was a 20th round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants last June ... Donald, in addition to leading the team in RBI, also paces the club with 13 doubles ... Glenn smacked three hits including a home run in Arizona's last game (Tuesday at New Mexico) ... Schmidt (like Sedbrook) is a JC transfer ... Guilmet is averaging nearly six innings per start ... Mills has been hit very hard in his last two starts (@OSU, UCLA): 9 IP, 16 H, 10 ER.



STANFORD NOTES
Stanford's margin for error is now razor-thin, to say the least.  The Cardinal have opened Pac-10 play with three consecutive series losses and after getting swept at Oregon State last weekend, find themselves at just 2-7 in conference.  Stanford's offense reached a new low against the Beavers as they managed just one run total in the three games.  Earlier this week, the Cardinal let a game get away from them late on Monday in a 9-4 loss to San Francisco.  But then on Tuesday, Stanford broke out with 15 hits in a 12-5 rout of the visiting Sacramento State Hornets.  The win moved the Cardinal's overall record back over .500 at 16-15.

Even though this series against the Wildcats is on the road, Stanford is in dire need of at least a couple of victories to gain some momentum and climb back to respectability in the Pac-10 race.  The Cardinal will play eight of their next nine games at Sunken Diamond after this weekend, so a series win versus Arizona could start a hot stretch that is so badly needed.  However, on the other side, if Stanford drops their fourth straight conference series, they'll find themselves in last place at the midpoint of the 24-game schedule with a slim possibility of making something of their season.

One player who has not struggled offensively of late has been senior third baseman Chris Lewis.  He's hit safely in eight of his last nine games and currently sports a team-best .441 (15-for-34) batting average during the month of April.  Fellow senior Chris Minaker has been one of the few bright spots offensively for Stanford all season long.  After a three-hit, three-RBI performance versus the Hornets, Minaker has seen his average climb to .331 to go with team-high totals of nine doubles (tied), five home runs, 35 RBI, and five stolen bases.

"We need to climb the ladder in the Pac-10," explains the red-hot Lewis.  "We need to get back into the hunt.  I think we go into their place coming off a night like [Tuesday vs. Sacramento State] and it gives us a chance to win one right off the bat.  Anytime you can do that, it kind of deflates the team when you beat them in their own park."

On the pitching side, the Cardinal will again send freshman Jeremy Bleich to the mound for the second spot in the rotation.  Bleich, after recording seven saves during the first half of the season, made his first career start last weekend at Oregon State.  All the southpaw did was fire six dominant innings with just one run and three hits allowed.  He also struck out four.  The outing was more than enough to remain in the rotation and thus Bleich gets the ball for Saturday night's second game.

Meanwhile, Greg Reynolds also threw well up in Corvallis (7 IP, 3 R, 7 SO) and gets the ball on Friday evening against Guilmet.  Senior Matt Manship, despite getting tagged for five runs in just 1 1/3 innings versus the Beavers, will make the start in the Sunday series finale.  Certainly a new point of emphasis for the Cardinal will be who steps up in the late innings as a closer now that Bleich is in the rotation.  Sophomores Nolan Gallagher (2-3, 2.49 ERA, 25 1/3 IP, 26 SO) and Erik Davis (0-1, 3.29 ERA, 1 SV, 13 2/3 IP) have both seen late-inning action this year.  Classmate David Stringer (2-2, 3.86 ERA, 32 2/3 IP, 5 BB, 36 SO) also gives Coach Marquess flexibility out of the bullpen either as a late-inning stopper or a long reliever.

Bottom line, the time is now for the Cardinal to make some sort of move.  Stanford has had success against some of the very best teams in the country, but have now not won a series since late-February (@Fresno State).  Arizona is a talented team, but they're young, and like Stanford, also hasn't been playing particularly well of late.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Ryan Seawell, CF  (Jr., .306, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 2 SB)
2. Joey August, LF  (Fr., .278, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 1 SB)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .331, 5 HR, 35 RBI, 5 SB)
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .306, 1 HR, 20 RBI, 1 SB)
5. John Hester, C  (Sr., .259, 1 HR, 11 RBI, 2 SB)
6. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., .261, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 3 SB)
7. Chris Lewis, 3B  (Sr., .269, 3 HR, 20 RBI, 1 SB)
8. Brent Milleville, DH  (Fr., .193, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 0 SB)
9. Cord Phelps, 2B  (Fr., .206, 0 HR, 6 RBI, 0 SB)

Fri- Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 2-3, 3.82 ERA, 63.2 IP, 18 BB, 52 SO)
Sat- Jeremy Bleich, LHP  (Fr., 2-2, 2.08 ERA, 26.0 IP, 7 BB, 19 SO)
Sun- Matt Manship, RHP  (Sr., 1-4, 5.31 ERA, 42.1 IP, 11 BB, 32 SO)

Notes: Seawell has started in center field and hit leadoff in each of the last two games ... He's gone 4-for-8 with a .636 on-base percentage (7-for-11) ... August picked up two hits versus Sacramento State to break out of a 2-for-23 (.087) slump ... Taylor is tied with Minaker for the team-lead in doubles (9), but has managed just one home run all season long (Game Three, February 5th vs. CS Fullerton) ... Castro has six hits in his last 12 AB's and is currently riding a four-game hitting streak ... Lewis has raised his average from .186 to .269 during his recent nine-game hot streak ... Phelps has started 11 of the last 13 games at second base, but has just three hits in his last 31 at-bats (.097) ... Jim Rapoport (one hit in last 20 AB's) and Randy Molina (one hit in last 16 AB's) have both struggled of late and saw little playing time earlier this week in non-conference action.



ODDS AND ENDS
* Arizona went a combined 0-6 this year versus Cal State Fullerton and Mississippi State, teams ranked #1 and #17 respectively in this week's Baseball America poll.  However, five of those six losses came by just one or two runs.

* The Wildcats bring a three-game losing streak into this series.  They suffered a 13-3 loss at New Mexico earlier this week after dropping the final two games of their home series with UCLA.

* Melancon was given an opportunity to start back on February 17th versus New Mexico.  The experiment didn't go particularly well as he was tagged for six runs on eight hits in five innings.  He quickly moved back to the bullpen where he's continued his outstanding season.  As a reliever, Melancon has a 2.10 ERA.

* Melancon last summer for Team USA racked up a 0.00 ERA with five saves in 12 1/3 innings (no walks, 10 K's).  He notched 11 saves for the Wildcats in 2005.

* Stanford and Arizona have played a pair of crazy series' the last two times they've met in Tucson.  In 2004, the Cardinal dropped two-of-three with one of those Wildcat victories coming by a 19-18 score.  Then back in 2002, Stanford knocked off Arizona by a 5-4 tally in 18 innings in the opener.  That was followed by a 19-1 Cardinal victory before the Wildcats salvaged a game in the series with a wild 15-13 win.

* According to Baseball America at the beginning of the season, the top three Pac-10 2007 draft prospects play for each of these teams.  Stanford's Taylor and Gallagher resided at #1 and #3 respectively on the list while Berger was at #2.

* Stanford is currently last in the Pac-10 in hitting (.265), fifth in pitching (4.30), and sixth in fielding (.965).

* No wet weather expected in Tucson!  The forecast calls for sunny skies and daytime highs in the low 90's all weekend.  Due to the warm weather, Arizona plays evening games on Saturday's (6 P.M., PDT) as well as Friday's (7 P.M., PDT) at this time of the year.  Both clubs will have to brave the extreme heat on Sunday though for a 12:00 P.M. first pitch.



QUOTABLE
Stanford senior third baseman Chris Lewis :

"
It's been tough to deal with losses like that.  You don't ever want to get comfortable losing because it's not a good feeling.  We've had some bumps, and I think we've killed ourselves in a few games.  I think the demeanor of the team isn't deflated.  We're still optimistic.  We're still positive.  We still want to pick each other up.  There is still a lot of fire in the dugout.  No one has given up, by any means.  We're all here to win ballgames.  That's why we came here.  We're excited."



PAC-10 STANDINGS

                   Conf.   GB   Overall
USC                 8-4    -    22-17
Oregon State        6-3   0.5   25-9
Arizona State       6-3   0.5   27-12
UCLA                5-4   1.5   21-15
California          6-6   2.0   19-17
Washington          4-5   2.5   25-14
Washington State    5-7   3.0   23-15
Arizona             3-6   3.5   15-19
Stanford            2-7   4.5   16-15

This Weekend:
* Stanford at Arizona
* Arizona State at UCLA
* Oregon State at California
* Washington at USC
 Washington State at Northern Colorado

* - Pac-10 series

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